Written By: B.D. Butler - Aug• 06•13

Click here for Blackfish.

As some of you may have seen or heard, there’s a new movie out about the capturing of orca’s and a look behind the scenes at SeaWorld, called Blackfish.  As soon as I saw the first trailer I knew that I had to see this movie!


I got Sealand here.

Yes, I am an avid animal lover, yes I am a lover of Orcas but more importantly I came very close to fulfilling my dream of being an orca trainer at SeaWorld.  In fact my first major in college was Marine Zoology, because I wanted to swim and train with orcas.  Point blank period.  After a couple of years I began to realize that it probably wasn’t suited for me, so I pursued other things.  Looking back there was always a “I wish I would have” feeling that never really went away.  Until I saw the movie, because I could have been one of those trainers I had come to marvel at.  Actually a lot easier than I had originally thought, and it could have ended in tragedy.


I got orca capture here.

This movie takes a look at the origin of Tilikum, the four ton orca that is allegedly responsible for three deaths. Tilikum was captured in the Northen Atlantic and transported to Victoria BC and placed at SeaLand.  It was after months of food deprivation, intense model/rival negative reinforcement training, alienation in metal pens 20 feet by 30 feet with no lights for up to twelve hours a day, he pulled a part-time trainer Kelte Byrne in the water by her boot, not because she was showing off, not because she was swimming with this giant killer whale, because she was walking, slipped and her boot went in the water.  February 21, 1991 will be engrained in witnesses who had to experience the tragedy still can recall the images of her being thrashed around and screaming for help.  SeaLand reported it as an accidental drowning.  SeaLand was closed and Tilukum was sold to SeaWorld.  None of the trainers were informed of his previous aggressive behavior or the death of Kelte Byrne.

orca roundup.2

I got orca roundup here.

To understand Tilukum you would have to go back.  Go back to the original Orca roundup on August 8th, 1970, in the Puget Sound and how the men who originally caught whales.  These same men who trapped killer whales for money eventually realized, by the reactions and sounds of their pods, “there was something more detrimental going on”.  Little was known about Orcas back at that time and they had no idea the pods were their family.  Children never leave their mother’s in wild Orca pods.  It wasn’t until I heard during the movie, during the large roundup there were three Orca that were killed in the nets, that I got that sick feeling in my stomach.  The men were ordered to gut them, fill them with rocks and sink them to the bottom of the sound to avoid a public scandal.


I got Orca raking here.

Tilikum, while at SeaWorld was abused by other females, due to his sheer size and the fact that Orcas are a matriarchal ruling society and males are pushed to the outside of the pod.  Tilikum being isolated and attacked not because he was interfering with the females, but because the pools were so small and he was so large.  He just couldn’t help it.  Tilukum was then sent to the rear pool, isolated and alone for his “protection”.

July 6, 1999 there was an alleged “accidental” drowning where a man broke into SeaWorld and jumped into the orca pools and was found dead, nude and draped on Tilikum’s back.  Dukes’ body mutilated and he was missing certain appendages on his body, because the whale ripped them off and ate them.  I will let your imagination do the rest.


Click here for Orca pod.

It has been discovered that Orcas, within their own pods, have their own languages or dialects and behaviors.  This equates to not only having a giant sense of self, but others.  It’s also been discovered they have one of the most complex and emotional brain on the planet.  Orcas have a higher sense of self than human beings and they have more attachments and loyalty to their family pods.  So, transferring one Orca from one pod into a pool, adding another from another pod and so on is like taking a pigeon, an african grey, a duck and a pheasant, putting them in an enclosure and expecting them to get along and perform circus tricks.  They cannot communicate, nor are they anything alike really, besides they have feathers.  These poor animals are terrified, ripped from their families and thrown into an environment a mere fragment of where they could be.  The ocean.

Click here for Tilikum and Dawn.

Click here for Tilikum and Dawn.

Let’s fast forward a little further almost twenty years to the day of the first attack from the mighty Tilikum, an extremely safety conscious, experienced trainer was killed, Dawn Brancheau.  Dawn’s colleagues and fellow trainers are interviewed throughout the movie, saying she was always “safe” and diligent about making sure others were as well.  The fateful day, they noticed the other whales were not responding to cues and fighting with one another in the main pool for the show.  In fact they had to end the show early because of misbehavior.  Tilikum was in the rear pool for the “Dinner with Shamu” show.  You can see in the recorded video recorded by a guest of SeaWorld, he was very responsive in the beginning.  He responded to cues, however he missed one “bridge” cue, letting him know he had finished the desired behavior of swimming through the pool with his pectoral flipper waving.  Instead of swimming a crescent shape, he swam in a large oval.  Because this was not the behavior he was not given the reward.  Dawn then went to lay beside him across the pool, not knowing he had heard the vibrations from the fish bucket, letting him know it was empty.  SeaWorld reported it was “trainer error” and Dawn was not supposed to be wearing her ponytail down, and that is why he was able to pull her into the water.  However witnesses say she was pulled in by her forearm.  SeaWorld made a blanket statement and just threw her under the bus.  Dawn’s arm was ripped off and eaten by the killer whale she had trained trusted and loved.  The same whale who supposedly didn’t “attack” her,  severed her spinal cord, broke her jaw and scalped her.  Of course this is all a trainer and former coworker of Dawn’s interpretation, but who would you listen to?  Someone who has worked with Tilly and Dawn, or a corporate attorney trying to sweep a potentially costly scandal under the rug?  You can decide.


Click for Tilly’s lonely life.

Since then, Tilikum has been in a back pool, and used only at the end of the show.  Big waves to splash the crowd and a bow.  Then back to his cell.  One visitor of the theme park recorded Tilikum floating motionless for almost 3 hours.  To be honest, I don’t understand why they don’t follow the suggestion of a former trainer and let him have a large sea pen.  Let him retire and treat him with some dignity, I think he’s earned it.  Admit when you’re wrong, and try to learn something from all of these incidents.  Because to this blogger and animal lover it just appears they have pacified situations and kept them out of the newspapers with twisting of words.

I began thinking about some things after the movie was over.  Tilikum has been performing with SeaWorld and has genetics in 54 other Orcas in theme parks all over.  Is it possible that his neuroses and aggression could have been engrained in his offspring or descendants?  Since Orcas are indeed wild animals, was Tilukum expressing his anger and frustration, the same way my parrot Cooper lets me know he is mad by acting out and slicing my skin like paper?  Have we become “masters of the universe” in our own minds and can’t conceivably believe that we truly don’t have control over the animals that we hold captive?

l-8There are many interpretations to this movie, it’s heartbreaking and makes you angry at the same time.  A feeling of guilt sweeps over me since I own non-domesticated animals and I think “what have we humans done?”.   Controversy has always followed any wild animal captured and used for displays of any kind.  Zoos, marine parks etc. have always been under the microscope.  Even the attempted domestication of parrots, makes you think.  Is any of this or has it ever been, “for the right reasons”?  Or are we just a selfish species?  We are the only species of animal on the planet that doesn’t adapt to our environment, we make the environment adapt to us.

I am a huge fan of documentaries and this is by far one of the best films, not just documentaries I have ever seen!  I felt so many stirs of emotions from this film, it was so well timed, put together, and the interviews were riveting.

The feeling of “I wish I would have” is no longer.  Blackfish has shown me that I made the right decision, not to go into a marine”circus” with some of the most powerful, intelligent and majestic animals on the planet.  I can sleep at night, however I wonder about the people who could have changed tragedy,  and who actually knew/know better, do they think “I wish I could have”?


Copyright 2013 – Parrot Earth – Blackfish



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  1. This was such a well-written post I can relate to. I remember the first time I let my first pair of Zebra Finches free-fly – they only made it a couple of feet before plopping to the ground. That broke my heart. Now they are all much stronger but I still feel like I am cheating them out of the mileage they would be getting in the wild.

    • B.D. Butler says:

      Chelsea, I often look at my birds and wonder if they really know what they are missing? Does the wild call to them? I guess we may never know, we just have to do the best we can with what we have. When you know better, you do better. Thanks for reading!!

      • I think as long as bird are escaping their owners, the wild is somehow calling to them. But, a lot do come back (even Finches)! So that must say something more about their desire for human companionship and loyalty/love for their people. There’s always new research being published, I’m sure we will learn what’s going on in their complex minds in about 100 years or so. 🙂 Well said about doing better. Thanks for sharing!~

  2. Awesome, as usual! Thanks for a great post!

  3. Debbie says:

    As usual, great post, B.D.!

    In answer to your question about parrots–I kinda look at the parrots not much differently than the movie Rio had depicted them. That the ones that live with us truly have learned behaviors from us that effectively creates an animal that does not function any longer as a wild one. In fact, their social behaviors are altered from that of what they do in the wild with each other. Learning boundaries, social cues and more are often not taught to our parrots by us when, in fact, the parrots look for the appropriate social contexts all the time. So, Blu in Rio was terrified of the wild vs. Jewel was terrified of humans and trusted non of them. That’s what I’ve seen in the 17 years of working with parrots, seeing parrots on raw film in the wild, seeing parrot directly in the wild and seeing parrots in all the areas in all the things they do with us. Some people cite that parrots are wild. Well, I’m sorry, but they can’t be wild if they are with us. Period. They aren’t any more. They equally aren’t domesticated. Therefore, they are neither. That’s why I like my term, “humanized”.

    F1 genetics in captivity vs. f1 genetics from natural selection in the wild have enough marker differences changing the effects of genetic behavior that our animals are no longer wild. We are simply not natural selection unless we can completely reproduce everything a parrot selects for in a mate in the wild. This is something we still don’t understand–why a parrot selects a certain mate to be with vs. others.

    Interesting you talk about Blackfish as the correlation between Blackfish and Parrots Confidential coming out are very similiar. Should we ever have had these animals in captivity? Do they only belong in the wild?
    My answer to that is, what have we learned? Have we learned anything? Has the species benefitted from what they learned in their natural settings or are they suffering as a result of them being in captivity?

    Like B.D., I wanted to be a marine mammal trainer. I did not ever, ever want to be an orca trainer. Never. Why? I never found them, in all of my research, to be very acclimated to captive environments. Not only that, but the “glory of swimming with them”. Really? I’d rather share their story of the wild, demonstrate them as pods breaching, showcase how they live as families. Showcase echolocation ability. The Orca show has always been the show-off show and not the educational show I have sought. Just because you are an orca trainer does not make you instantly the best trainer in the world, better than all others, yet that was the way of it. I hate the way SeaWorld has become so dependant on swimming with the animals and lacking in so many ways the educational element which is why the very animal is there. Then, I go to watch the current dolphin show and it’s about a magical fantasy land of dolphins mixing with parrots–I mean, uber cool that parrots are finally being showcased as equally awesome as a marine mammal to work with, but a circus act? REALLY!!!!!!! Made me mad as all heck. The only thing the dolphins showed in that show were people swimming with them. Good lord!

    Then, I talked to the trainers in training at Discovery Cove, where guests can swim with dolphins in naturalistic settings. This was shunned when I wrote my paper back in 1996 by all marine mammal institutions, much like free flying a parrot was. Now, both practices are becoming more common. The trainers there were complaining they were not doing a show and that the work they were doing was pointless, meaningless and degrading (in 2002 when I was at Discovery Cove doing a Swim Test again to see if I would ever pass! Of which I blew everything out of the water, having worked at RFC for so many years by then). WHAT??? The work a trainer is doing by working their animal with the public setting is the perfect opportunity to open direct communication and empathy for the animal you love to work with!! Dear Lord SeaWorld has the trainer’s mindset completely and totally wrong.

    The stress a trainer has to go through to become a trainer at SeaWorld is tremendous. You get paid absolutely nothing. Definately not a living wage. You have to have several jobs to support your passion and you literally dedicate your entire life to your passion. Then, the director of SeaWorld yells at you that your animal must perform at a rating of 90% or higher at all times. That you could be fired or replaced easily. There are hundreds in line to want your position. This is simply awful to work with. No creativity to add to a prescribed show. No sponteneity awarded. This is the earmark shame of SeaWorld that and turning education into solely entertainment during the actual show itself. I despise it.

    Funny, B.D., that you wanted to be a marine mammal trainer as I wanted to be one as well since I was 7 years old. But I did not want to work at the shows. I wanted to prove to the world that dolphins could be trained on social reinforcers only. I had the privelge of playing for hours with dolphins as a kid and as a teenager at a smaller facility that is now closed. But it was my experience at this facility where the dolphins, in a petting tank situation, would rather come be with me than get fed during the feedings that would take place. All because I gave them the time of day. I went to the only college that actually had dolphins on the campus, University of California at Santa Cruz. I applied to 38 different institutions to become the “run of the mill trainer” in hopes of getting to a facility where I could exercise my creative thought processes on training dolphins. Alas, never happened.

    Instead, I got hooked on parrots at Rainforest Cafe. Then, I went back to see the dolphins at UCSC–behold, they had parrots. Went to seaworld, their dolphin show had parrots and I even gave advice on how to work their parrots for the show behind the scenes! How amazing it is to work with such an animal that does not have the contraints a dolphin has yet have as much intelligence. So much cooler than working with a dolphin as far as the ability to be the ultimate ambassadors of the planet.

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